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Pastoral ideas nixed as curia holds the line

NCR Staff

As the European synod drew to a close Oct. 23, the handful of bold ideas heard over these past three weeks appeared destined not to survive in the official proposals to be placed before the pope.

At least one prelate here says he knows why: the influence of the Roman curia.

The synod’s final document was not complete as NCR went to press. Based on early reports, however, it seemed there would be no call for greater sharing of authority among bishops and the pope, no proposal for women to head curial agencies, no movement toward allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, and no plan for a wider program of ordaining married men as priests.

All four ideas had been floated in the synod, either in individual interventions or in the small group discussions.

“There’s a strong lobby in opposition to any discussion of that sort of thing from the curial bishops,” said Archbishop Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh in Scotland in a briefing session with English-speaking journalists Oct. 20.

O’Brien said that tension between curial cardinals and other bishops has been palpable at the European Synod, as bishops working in dioceses press for pastoral options while curial officials defend the status quo.

“It hasn’t quite come to blows, but views are put across very, very strongly,” O’Brien said. “According to the theology of Vatican II, we are the vicars of Christ in our diocese. But some of the bishops in Rome don’t think that way.”

In one of two English-language groups at the synod, the curial influence was amplified through the voices of two Americans: Cardinal James Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for Laity; and Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, a special papal appointee.

According to O’Brien, several of the Europeans argued for more flexibility from Rome on pastoral matters but met with resistance from the Americans. English, Irish and Scottish bishops, for example, complained about the Vatican’s refusal to approve the use of general absolution under special circumstances. General absolution is a form of the sacrament of reconciliation in which the priest administers forgiveness to a group rather than doing it individually.

Stafford and Maida spoke in favor of the Vatican position. Stafford, according to O’Brien, was especially vocal about his experiences as a diocesan bishop of the value of one-to-one confession.

Stafford led the Denver archdiocese before his 1996 appointment to Rome.

In the end, the group could not agree on any proposal on the issue.

The group also discussed ordaining married men to the priesthood in the Latin rite, an idea that had been expressed as a proposition by another language group. O’Brien said the curial bishops in the English group stressed the value of celibacy so strongly they “would have made it almost a divine law.” The most strident opposition to any change came from Maida and Stafford, according to O’Brien. Joining in the vote against discussion of ordaining married men was Archbishop John Foley, formerly of Philadelphia and now president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, was also a member of this language group.

In an interview with NCR, another prelate -- Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium -- used far more diplomatic language to agree that the church today has a problem with over-centralization of power.

Danneels said that John Paul II has made attempts to share authority, but that “after 1,000 years of centralization, to open the church to a new collegiality is not so easy. It will probably take two or three more popes to find new ways of doing it.”

Danneels said the bishops must take the initiative. “You can easily criticize the lack of collegiality, but give me a concrete proposal of how to do it,” Danneels said. “We need to be more systematic in our approach.”

In a remarkably blunt assessment, O’Brien said that both on the synod floor and in small groups, curial cardinals tend to reject ideas that contradict present Vatican policy. Their influence is strong enough to keep proposals for change out of the synod documents, O’Brien said.

In his small group, O’Brien said, curial officials were four of the 10 voting members and hence could block movement on many issues.

Danneels said he expects the topic of collegiality to be discussed at the next general synod, devoted especially to the role of bishops. That meeting is currently scheduled for October of 2000.

Among some residential bishops, O’Brien said, there is a frustration that the cardinals and archbishops who run curial agencies seem out of touch with local realities.

As a case in point, O’Brien said the bishops of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales had hoped to hold special sacrament of reconciliation services during Lent in 2000, in keeping with the theme of the Jubilee Year. The bishops hoped to include use of the so-called “third rite” of reconciliation. That rite ends in a general absolution -- often opposed by Vatican officials who fear that it will lead to a drop in individual confessions.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments refused permission for the services. “This was a proposal made by our four hierarchies, drawing on bishops who are strong theologians and relying on our own advisers,” O’Brien said. “But Cardinal [Estévez Jorge Arturo] Medina wouldn’t budge.” Medina heads the congregation.

To break such logjams, O’Brien said he thought another council might be necessary. His suggestion echoed a comment made from the synod floor by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, who said the time would be ripe in the next decade to renew the sense of worldwide collegiality among bishops experienced at Vatican II.

Danneels disagreed. “To have a good council you have to prepare it very well,” he said. “You cannot do it on two or three questions, you have to do it on the general state of the church. I don’t know that we are ready to do that in the next one or two years.”

But O’Brien added that he wasn’t talking about a council merely of bishops. “I see no reason why it shouldn’t include members of religious orders and laity, too,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999